A year-long spending moratorium

While walking the dog last weekend, Kim noted that I've been getting a lot of packages in the mail lately. "What's up with that?" she asked.

I sighed.

"Remember how we shared that bottle of champagne on New Year's Eve?" I said. "Well, that got me buzzed enough that I sat down at my computer and ordered a bunch of used books. Mystery novels and manga. So, those are starting to filter in." That's right. I got drunk on New Year's Eve (because I no longer drink regularly, I've become a lightweight) and ordered old John le Carré paperbacks and Lone Wolf and Cub compilations from ABE Books. I lead an exciting life, my friends.

"Don't you have enough books?" Kim asked.

"Honestly, I do," I said. "And I haven't read half of them. I haven't watched half of the movies I've purchased. I haven't read half of my graphic novels."

"You only wear about half of the clothes in your closet," Kim added. We stopped to let the dog dig in the ditch. Tally was certain she smelled a rodent and was desperate to find it.

"Right," I said. "I know I'm not the only one who does this, but that doesn't mean I like it. I feel as if I ought to take a break from buying new stuff and just work through the books and movies and clothes I already own."

"I feel as if you ought to do that too," Kim said, laughing. Then Tahlequah saw a deer in the neighbor's field, and our conversation was forgotten in the ensuing excitement. Bark bark bark! Deers are evil.

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More about...Psychology, Spending Wisely

My 2020 in review: Steps in the right direction

Are you all ready for this? It's one of my favorite days of the year! I just spent an hour entering data in Quicken, then another thirty minutes analyzing it. It's time to run some numbers.

How well did I do with my financial goals last year? Was I able to cut back on dining out? (Hint: There was a global pandemic. What do you think?) Did my net worth rise or fall? Let's take a look.

First, let's review where I was at the end of 2019.

Quite simply, I was a mess. Objectively, my life was good, but subjectively it was a disaster. My mental health was in shambles. Depression and anxiety were crippling me and truly affecting my relationships with other people. I felt like I was in the middle of a prolonged car crash.

The good news is that, for the most part, 2020 was much better from a personal perspective. Yes, I understand that 2020 sucked for a lot of people. And it was the most tumultuous year our country has seen in a generation. But for me, personally, the year was mostly good. I'll explain why this is in a bit, but first lets look at the Big Picture.

My Net Worth

Here's my end-of-year net worth from each of the past three years. (These numbers do not include the value of my business or this website.)

  • At the end of 2018, my net worth was $1,334,227 — a 15.2% decrease from 2017.
  • At the end of 2019, my net worth was $1,437,543 — a 7.7% increase from 2018.
  • At the end of 2020, my net worth was $1,373,233 — a 4.5% decrease from 2019.

Now, on paper a decrease of net worth amounting to $64,310 might seem scary. Maybe it's because I'm in a better mental space than last year, but it doesn't bother me. This may also be due to the fact that I realize most of that drop comes from Zillow's valuation of our home.

At the end of 2019, Zillow said our country cottage was worth $495,749. At the end of 2020, the home was valued at $437,127, which is a drop of $58,622.

Yes, I realize using Zillow to track our home value is...erratic. And it leads to fluctuations like this. Still, I feel like it's a solid enough source for home values, and it gives me some sort of number to go on.

That's one way of looking at it. But looked at another way, things are a little dicier. You see, I currently live off of my investments. Most of those investments are in retirement accounts, which I can't touch (unless I want a tax penalty) for another eight years. At the start of 2019, my regular taxable investment accounts contained $269,264. Today, they have $197,117. That there could also be my drop in net worth.

One thing is certain, though. That $197,117 isn't enough to get me to age 59-1/2 at my current level of spending. I need to spend less, earn more, or (preferably) both.

Now, let's look at some of the numbers in greater detail.

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More about...Administration

Start where you are

Ah, a brand new year.

Especially after the shitshow that was 2020, it's good to have the sense that we can begin anew, that we can shed some of those habits and behaviors that have been holding us down while adopting new patterns that lead us to become better humans.

I actually enjoyed a fruitful second half to 2020. I lost 24 pounds. I (mostly) gave up alcohol. I recorded 61 videos. I made progress in my fight against depression and anxiety. And, most importantly, I resumed the habit of writing every day.

In 2021, I want to build on this momentum. I want to continue these habits while incorporating a few new ones, such as tracking my time, keeping a personal journal, and — once I reach my target weight — exercising regularly once more.

There's one thing that often holds me back when I decide to make changes. It holds others back too. It's the overwhelming feeling that there's just so much to do — and that I've handicapped myself through poor choices in the past. I remember the physical feats I was capable of when doing Crossfit a decade ago, for instance, and I feel a sense of helplessness. I'm nowhere near as fit I was ten years ago. There's no way I can do that stuff today.

But I have to remind myself: It's not a competition. I ought not compare myself to others — or to my past self. My sole goal should be a better person tomorrow than I am today.

To do this, I must accept who I am, where I am. It sure would be nice if I were to start a fitness program in better shape than I currently am, but that's only a dream. If I want to change, I have to accept reality. I need to start where I am.

And if you want to change — if you want to master your money, your health, your relationships, your career — you too must start where you are.

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More about...Money Basics, Psychology

Myths and misconceptions about financial independence and early retirement

As the financial independence and early retirement movement (or FIRE movement, for short) has gained popularity, some myths and misconceptions have sprung up about what it entails. Too many people make assumptions about what the FIRE movement is and what it's made of.

A lot of folks think the FIRE movement is cult-ish. Some think that financial independence and early retirement are only for rich white people. (Or, more specifically, for white men in the tech industry.) Others say that early retirement is only possible with a high income. Or you can only do this if you're so frugal it hurts. And, of course, there are folks like Suze Orman who "hate hate hate" the FIRE movement because they believe you need millions in order to retire — early or otherwise.

I'll be honest. Each objection and complaint about financial independence contains a grain of truth. But each objection and complaint misses the point in some important ways.

Today, let's look at some of these myths and misconceptions about financial independence and early retirement, and explore why these myths and misconceptions are myths and misconceptions.

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More about...Retirement

The GRS Holiday Gift Guide

Every year at about this time, I start getting questions by email and social media — and even in Real Life: "Do you have any personal-finance or money-related gift ideas?"

I know how tempting it can be to choose gifts that encourage smart financial choices. You look at the poor decisions your brother or sister have made, and you feel like you could help. If only they would read this one book that helped you so much!

I get it. I've felt the same way. After all, my financial turnaround is a direct result of reading two books that were gifted to me by friends: Your Money or Your Life and Dave Ramsey's The Total Money Makeover.

That said, money gifts like these can be dangerous. They have the very real potential to create hard feelings and resentment rather than achieve the goal you're after. Any time you offer unsolicited advice — especially in the form of a gift — you run the risk of making the recipient more resistant.

Now, having said that, there are times and situations where gifts with a financial theme make sense.

  • Do you have a niece who's about to leave home and forge out on a life of her own? A money manual might indeed be a welcome gift.
  • Are there kids in your life whose parents don't have personal finance figured out? A money-based board game could indeed impart lessons to the entire family.
  • Has your father been talking lately about needing to take retirement seriously? Well, he probably could profit from a meeting with a financial advisor.

After fifteen years of thinking about this subject, I've come up with a short list of financial gift ideas that might help to foster smart money moves without creating resentment. Let's take a quick look at some potential personal-finance gifts that sometimes make sense — if the recipient is ready to hear the message.

Note that I've deliberately tried to steer clear of junk. There are tons of money-themed gifts out there that serve absolutely no purpose: money soap, money placemats, money t-shirts. These are all basically rubbish. The money gift ideas I've listed here are meant to be practical, to foster future wealth. They're not novelties.

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More about...Money Tools

A list of personal-finance events, conferences, and retreats

Last week, my colleague Patrick from Cash Money Life pinged me on Facebook. "Hey, J.D. What are some of the other personal-finance conferences out there?" he asked. Patrick and I brainstormed a list of money events, and I realized that this might be useful for GRS readers.

(Well, this list might be useful eventually. Right now, during COVID, this list isn't useful to anyone haha.)

Here's a quick list of the various personal-finance events, conferences, and retreats that I'm aware of. If you know of others that should be on this list, please drop me a line. I'm happy to add them.

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More about...Money Tools

Essentialism: The mindful pursuit of quality

It's been quiet around here for the past few months. Generally when things go dormant at Get Rich Slowly, that's not a good sign. It usually means that I've sunk into the depths of depression, the pit of despair.

I'm pleased to report that in this case, that's not the issue. In this case, the opposite has happened. Lately, life is grand. During the past three months, I've been diligently working to eliminate the net negatives from my life while also emphasizing those things that are essential. To that end, I've:

  • Recorded, edited, and published nearly 50 YouTube videos. These are rough, and I know it, but I'm learning from them — and having fun.
  • Given up alcohol. And recently, I've given up pot. I'm experimenting with complete sobriety for a while.
  • Lost nearly twenty pounds through simple, sensible eating (and calorie counting). This morning, I weighed in at 186.8, down 17.4 pounds since I started on July 28th.
  • Cleaned and organized nearly every space in my life, "editing" my belongings in an attempt to cut back to the essentials.
  • Worked hard in the yard. I've built a fence with one neighbor and am starting another fence with a second neighbor. Plus, I've continued our landscaping projects.
  • Begun reading again for pleasure. Yay!
  • And much, much more.

I've had a busy three months. And while, yes, I've had a few bouts of depression, they've been minor and brief. Mostly, I've been happy and productive.

Not much of that productivity has been directed at this website, and I'm okay with that. I know there's plenty of personal finance inside me ready to be shared in due time.

Meanwhile, it's been rewarding to devote so much time to essentials, to the core concerns of my life.

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More about...Productivity, Uncategorized

How to prepare for a natural disaster

My world is on fire.

As you may have heard, much of Oregon is burning right now. Thanks to a "once in a lifetime" combination of weather and climate variables -- a long, dry summer leading to high temps and low humidity, then a freak windstorm from the east -- much of the state turned to tinder earlier this week. And then the tinder ignited.

At this very moment, our neighborhood is cloaked in smoke.

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More about...Home & Garden

Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative

When Kim and I go to bed each night, we spend time casually browsing Reddit on our iPads. It's fun. Mostly.

She and I enjoy sharing funny animal videos with each other (from subreddits like /r/animalsbeinggenisuses, /r/happycowgifs, and /r/petthedamndog). Kim dives deep into /r/mapporn and /r/documentaries. I read about comics and computer games and financial independence.

But here's the thing. After browsing Reddit for thirty minutes or an hour, I'm left feeling unsatisfied. In fact, I'm often in a bad mood. After browsing Reddit, I have a negative attitude. My view of the world has deteriorated. Why? Because for all the fun and interesting things on Reddit, it's also filled with a bunch of crap.

You see, I also subscribe to /r/idiotsincars and /r/publicfreakout and /r/choosingbeggars — and dozens more like these. These subreddits highlight the worst in human behavior. And while viewing one or two posts from forums like these can be entertaining and/or interesting, consuming mass quantities of this stuff leaves me feeling dirty. (Plus, there's the Reddit comments which tend to be juvenile, dogmatic, and myopic. Reddit comments are so bad that Kim refuses to read them.)

It's taken a while, but I've come to believe that Reddit -- or the way that I use Reddit, anyhow -- is a net negative in my life. It causes more harm than good.

I've been thinking about his concept a lot lately. Behind the scenes, I've been making many small, subtle changes to my environment and daily routine. My aim is to decrease my depression and anxiety by removing people, things, and experiences that are net negatives and replacing them with people, things, and experiences that are net positives.

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More about...Planning

We didn’t start the FIRE: The true history of financial independence

I used to be a collector. I collected trading cards. I collected comic books. I collected pins and stickers and mementos of all sorts. I had boxes of things I'd collected but which essentially served no purpose.

I can't say I've shaken the urge to collect entirely, but I have a much better handle on it than I used to. A few years ago, I sold my comic collection and stopped obsessing over them. Today, I collect three things: patches from the countries I visit, pins from national parks, and -- especially -- old books about money.

Collecting old money books is fun. For one, it ties to my work. Plus, there's not a huge demand for money manuals, so there's not a lot of competition to buy them. (Exception: As much as I'd love a copy of Ben Franklin's The Way to Wealth, so would a lot of other people. That one is out of my reach.)

One big bonus from collecting old money books is actually reading these books. They're fascinating. And it's interesting to trace the development of certain ideas in the world of personal finance.

For instance, there's this persistent myth of "lost economic virtue". That is, a lot of people today want to argue that people were better at managing their money in the past. They weren't. Debt (and poor money skills) has been a persistent problem since well before the United States was founded. It's not like we, as a society, once had smart money skills and lost them. The way people manage money today is the way they've always managed money.

Or there's the notion of financial independence (and the closely-related topic of early retirement). The standard narrative goes something like this:

When you read old money books, however, you soon realize that FIRE isn't new. These ideas have been kicking around for a while. Sure, the past decade has seen the systemization and codification of the concepts, but people have been preaching the importance of financial independence for about 150 years. Maybe longer.

Today, using my collection of old money books, let's take a look at where the notion of financial independence originated.

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More about...Retirement